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Is the Lakers-Grizzlies Beef Real?

The NBA’s newest (and maybe most heated?) rivalry has delivered plenty of theatrics this season, but it’s unclear whether there is actual animosity between these two teams. Through two first-round games, it appears the feud is still figuring itself out.

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About an hour after the Memphis Grizzlies blew past the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of their first-round series, a man stood in a room surrounded by microphones, sunglasses on and shirt off, talking about poking bears. Dillon Brooks is many things: defensive force, offensive roller coaster, the “soul” of Memphis’s team, but he is also, from time to time, just a guy speaking into a microphone, insulting another guy.

This time, that other guy was arguably the greatest player ever to touch a basketball, LeBron James. The pull quote: “I don’t care. He’s old. … I poke bears. I don’t respect no one until they come in and give me 40.” Brooks then got wistful, or at least as wistful as Dillon Brooks ever gets, imagining what it might have been like to play a younger LeBron. “He’s not at the same level he was in Cleveland and winning championships in Miami,” Brooks said. “I wish I got to see that. I mean, it would have been a harder, harder task.”

As the Lakers and Grizzlies shift to Los Angeles, we have a series that doesn’t know what it is yet, played between two teams with no clue who they can be, dominated so far by players who’ve never experienced this kind of moment, in the shadow of incandescent stars. So far we’ve seen Ja Morant flying, crashing, then sprinting to the locker room and screaming in obvious pain. LeBron, who often seems too wise to engage in casual shit talk, appearing to call Brooks a “motherfucking bum.” Austin Reaves declaring himself “Him.” John Konchar engulfing Anthony Davis at the rim. The Lakers controlling a Game 1 played mostly with Morant on the floor, and then Grizzlies fans ending a Game 2 blowout with chants of “Whoop that trick” while their star watched from the sideline, beaming in sweats and a single glove.

We were promised a few things in Lakers-Grizzlies. The league’s youngest star on a stage with its oldest. James and Davis ready to show that, when healthy and surrounded by competence, they remain capable of powering a playoff threat. A young Memphis core determined to break through. One of the playoffs’ only first-round matchups that featured two teams with real, genuine animosity for each other.

We’ve gotten all of that, but only in flashes. It’s still early. As Desmond Bane said when asked about the series not yet having the venom sometimes found in the playoffs: “I’m sure it will by the end of it.” And with the Lakers missing a chance to take a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies’ home floor, it appears we may still have a long way to go.

We were justified, at least somewhat, in believing in the possibility of genuine animus. A brief accounting of these teams’ history: Entering the series, this matchup promised the possibility of genuine beef. In 2021, LeBron hit Dillon Brooks with the now-ubiquitous “too small” taunt, setting off a round of the kind of debate show chatter that erupts anytime LeBron does anything. In 2022, Desmond Bane said to LeBron, “them footsteps ain’t scaring nobody” after James lagged getting back on transition defense. Not to be confused with another moment between James and Bane, featuring a classic shit-talking slow bump and James yelling at Bane while Morant cackled in between them. And most famously of all, this January, the two teams’ jacked and middle-aged attachés, Tee Morant and Shannon Sharpe, had to be separated on the sideline in L.A. after a verbal spat nearly came to blows.

It’s been largely hard to tell, though, how much of this is genuine animosity and how much is just competitive posturing. Sure the Lakers hate the Grizzlies. Everyone hates the Grizzlies. Sure the Grizzlies hate the Lakers. The Grizzlies hate everyone. Two teams enter a basketball court. One of them wears a shirt that says “Memphis.” Chest-thumping and mock-clapping and general shithousery are all guaranteed to ensue. Brooks is the machine that powers a lot of this. He called Sharpe a “blogger.” He once declared that LeBron doesn’t “want to go left,” but that he could force him that direction against his will. Before the Lakers clinched the 7-seed and a spot in this series, he said, “I wouldn’t mind playing LeBron in a seven-game series,” adding that he would “knock him out right away.”

Sometimes, though, it has felt like manufactured venom, something far less than the actual ill wishes Grizzlies players seem to have for the Golden State Warriors. In Memphis before Game 1 against the Lakers, the vibes were largely cordial. When Morant was given a chance to agree with Brooks’s eagerness to “knock” LeBron “out right away,” he said, “That sounds like clickbait to me.” In the arena, Anthony Davis came out for warmups and engaged Tee Morant with extended and exuberant dap—multiple handshakes, a lengthy hug—before continuing to prep for the game. When LeBron first took the floor for warmups, the arena greeted him with something like reverence. A hush came over the small-but-growing crowd. Cellphones lifted aloft. He glided around the perimeter, opposing fans rapt as he shot routine jumpers against air. That reverence extended to Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, who spoke at length of the ways he knew James could threaten his team. In particular, he pointed to the ways James dissects defenses, both in the half court and in transition, always attuned to the weak spots on the floor. “He’s seen every single coverage known to NBA history,” Jenkins said. “So whatever you’re going to throw at him, whether it’s matchup-related, it’s in his post-iso game, it’s his pick-and-roll game, it’s in transition. He’s seen it all, and he’s still flourishing.” Only later, when he was formally introduced by the PA announcer, did Grizz fans offer James tepid boos.

So far, the superstars and irritants have taken a back seat on the court to the role players. In Game 1, Reaves and Rui Hachimura carried the Lakers through the fourth quarter, finishing with 23 and 29 points, respectively, while James and Davis passed long stretches without taking any shots at all. James seemed happy afterward to cede command of the game. “We trust him with the ball in his hands,” James said of Reaves. He reflected on the growth of Hachimura, who arrived in Los Angeles in January and has slowly grown into a more confident role. Afterward, though, at least one Grizzly was unimpressed. “It’s probably the best game he’s had of his career,” Bane said. “Let’s see if he can do it again.” (He didn’t, not exactly, but Hachimura remained a Lakers bright spot in Game 2, scoring 20 points on 7-of-12 from the field.)

After Game 1, a national consensus built around the Lakers, who now seemed in total control. One win on the road already, with a chance for another while Morant sat on the bench. Instead, the Grizzlies suffocated the Lakers defensively in Game 2, rendering Davis a nonfactor and limiting the scoring chances for most everyone but Hachimura and James. The Grizzlies were powered by a career-high 22 points from Xavier Tillman Sr., a former second-round pick who has bounced between the NBA and the G League, in and out of the rotation, and who’d faced speculation that he should be benched after an ineffective Game 1. “You couldn’t write this, man,” he said after Wednesday’s game, reflecting on the ups and downs of his career. “It lets me know that no matter what I’m going through, it’ll always pass.”

There have been moments, though, that have promised that actual drama may be yet to come. In Game 1, James followed Brooks to the sideline, step by step, leaning his head in to overhear an exchange between the Grizzlies’ enforcer and Jenkins. By the second half of Game 2, we got a taste of what the matchup once promised. James and Brooks running down the court in lockstep, talking shit. “I just let him know that you can’t take me one-on-one,” Brooks said. “You haven’t. You go look at the film.” By the time they reached the Lakers bench, Brooks was shouting in James’s face, and the TNT cameras caught LeBron firing back, a rarity for a man who has been swatting away mouthy wings like gnats since Brooks was in elementary school.

Afterward, Brooks was undeterred. “I got him today,” he said after helping “hold” James to a game-high 28 points. “I got him talking to me. So we’ll see in Game 3 if he keeps talking and I’m there for it.”

These games have not been pretty. In Game 1, Morant went down after clattering into Davis for a charge in. In Game 2, Davis had to get treatment after Bane cut his eye on a jump ball. In both, the winning team succeeded by suffocating its opposition, Davis and Jaren Jackson Jr. each turning the paint into a no-fly zone.

What we have, so far, is a series without a shape. This could go five games or it could go seven, could end with either team seeing a path to the conference finals and the other unsure of where it should turn next. We don’t know when Morant will be back, or how long James and Davis can hold up. We only know that these players almost seem like they want to dislike each other. Perhaps with a few more games, contrived antipathy won’t be necessary anymore.

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